Olivier Theatre, London SE1
Opened 9 July, 2004

Desmond Barrit bellows out the opening number "Comedy Tonight" in what James Joyce called a "bass barreltone". As proceedings continue, one grows to suspect that singing ability was not uppermost in director Edward Hall's mind when casting (pace stage-musical stalwart Philip Quast). Along with this suspicion, however, grows the conviction that it doesn't matter a toss. A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum is a farce with songs, albeit that the songs are by Stephen Sondheim; what counts is the way Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart mix together several 2200-year-old plots by Plautus into one delightful, pell-mell heap.

When crafty slave Pseudolus is offered his freedom if he can set his young master up with a certain girl, you already know that there are going to be all sorts of extravagant schemes, ludicrous disguises and mistaken identities, no doubt entailing drag. You also know it will end happily, and that this will probably involve the neighbour's children, kidnapped many years ago by pirates, turning up again. And, knowing all that, you just sit back and enjoy it unfolding over two and a quarter hours.

Barrit has an excellent stage demeanour for the part of Pseudolus. It's not so much that he works the audience as that he feels like one of us, chatting away rather than speechifying, and ad-libbing when things go awry. He's not the most physically energetic he tends to saunter rather than hare but he gives a very economical impression of frenzy by adroit use of voice and gesture. You can almost see the shades of former inhabitants of the role, Zero Mostel and Frankie Howerd, nodding on approvingly.

As Pseudolus's sidekick Hysterium, Hamish McColl is effectively Barrit's equal. McColl, co-creator of the ongoing stage hit The Play What I Wrote, has the knack of making every line he ever utters, whether it's by Eddie Braben or Bertolt Brecht, sound as if it were written especially for that eager, slightly finicky but ultimately hapless persona of his. A whole clutch of familiar faces Sam Kelly, Isla Blair, David Schneider, Harry Towb and the aforementioned Quast career around this central duo.

Being both Roman in origin and 1960s in its refurbishment, the nudge-nudge quotient is high, but it's the kind of bawdy that seems not to date. The origins of the student toga party are no longer a mystery. And if you want a set design that's clever, versatile and inexpensive, then contact Improbable Theatre mainstay Julian Crouch, who works the necessary miracles to make the show appear spectacular whilst keeping it within the financial constraints of the National Theatre's second Travelex £10 season. I can think of absolutely no reason why anyone in search of good clean dirty fun shouldn't rush to the South Bank forthwith.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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